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Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Does an "A" Really Mean?

Students' grades at my school are as complex as the kids are. The factors that contribute to the letter that is printed on the final report card number more than the instances I've made fun of the acting in pornos. We take into account the following factors:

  1. If the student is identified as having a disability, modifications and accommodations influence the final grade. Some assignments are shortened, some cut out completely, some made simpler etc.

  2. If the student is not yet identified as having a disability but we all see it and have to wait a whole year for our psychologist to get him formally identified and we know it'd be unfair to not give him the accommodations and modifications in the meantime.

  3. Full acceptance of late work, no matter how late if the students are in the lower level classes means grades are constantly tweaked and hardly ever carved in stone.

  4. If the student experienced some form of emotional trauma, incarceration, or extended medical condition which meant that a lot of school time was about productive as Dr Pepper in a car engine, then there's room for a grade change to possibly occur down the road.

  5. If the student made a huge effort, had good attendance, but doesn't qualify as a student with special needs, then there's a chance this will also influence his grade.

  6. Extra credit opportunities out the wazoo.

So... Say a kid takes advantage of half or more of the perks I've listed above... And say that kid gets an "A" in his classes because of those perks... And let's say another kid does not need to take advantage of ANY of them and also gains an "A"... Should a distinction be made? If so, how? If not, what are we saying about the kid who always handed in assignments on time compared to the kid who doesn't have a disability but handed everything in late and still earned the same grade? What life lesson are we teaching?

And what of the kids with special needs? What about the kid who is "included" in the college preparatory math class (as per his parents' demands and for no other reason, because he certainly doesn't qualify). So he sits in the corner and is learning to count to eight while the rest of the kids are doing algebra? So he meets his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goal of learning to count to eight and so earns an "A" on his report card, and he's entitled to some recognition for meeting his goal, but it doesn't say on his report card that his "A" was for counting to eight as compared to his classmate who earned an "A" for correctly solving for variables in polynomials. Now with this kid, it's obvious he's handicapped just by looking at the poor chap, so he's not going to steal the other kid's place in Harvard or anything, but there are other examples that worry me more...

No one aspires to be a factory employee or fast food server, but some students REALLY have unhealthily ambitious dreams. More than once, my smart-mouthed kids think they have what it takes to be a lawyer because they assume the only job requirement is being able to argue and... Well.. Be a smart ass. You hope they'll eventually figure out that law school might not be the best option for them, but then you have a situation like this: A mentally retarded student who works her ass off and does all her work is bumped up to college preparatory freshman classes, not because she's truly capable, but because she can read at the 6th grade level. Our lower level classes are so overcrowded that our criteria has... Ahem... Dropped some. So I'm obliged to help her by modifying, accommodating until it's possible for her to pass her college prep. classes. So now she and her family think she's capable of going to college- which she might actually be- given some of the people I saw when I was in college, but definitely not law school... But she has no other dream. She's going to be a lawyer.

And then there's another situation that's very similar, but in this kid's case, his mother shares his belief that he's going to major in art in college. He's even less likely to succeed in college than my other girl and, frankly, his paintings and drawings are godawful. But hey, he's got an "A" in art class so that means he's good, right? Wrong. It means he met the bare minimum requirement of simply attempting each assignment, often at the pressure of both me and his art teacher because he was late with almost every single one. What does his "A" really mean?

As a special education teacher, I totally get that we should test these kids according to their level of ability and challenge them with reasonably higher expectations, but then shouldn't that be stated alongside their grade too? It's not like employers actually look at high school transcripts so we wouldn't be branding them against future employment... I just think a kid in a 9th grade English class who reads and writes on the 3rd grade level (at best) should only be able to earn an "A" if it's made clear that the criteria for her is VASTLY different from that of her peers.

There are kids who are graduating high school who can't read any higher than the 3rd grade level and don't even have identified special needs. What on Earth does graduation from a high school mean anymore? And ask for the kids who are identified as having special needs, we've done such a good job of boosting their self-confidence that the whole lot of them are going to be rap stars, basketball stars, lawyers, and future presidents and so don't always see the value of the fantastic programs on offer at the local career and technical education schools which don't just churn out minimum wage jobs, but some really great opportunities for those who may not be successful in college but want to learn a specialized profession.

I really don’t have an answer to this problem and will continue to dwell on this for as long as I’m a teacher and beyond. I think that if we support "our" kids through their triumphs and disappointments and help them find her way eventually, they’ll be fine, but if we were to harbor and push for unrealistic expectations as some of their parents do, that would be far more harmful. Don't get me wrong, I hate to sound like a dream-crushing bitch and there's nothing wrong with having dreams... Kids can and always do dream for the stars, you just have to be there for the times they fall to the ground and with the way we send these kids over the finish line known as graduation, it's rather like chucking them off the side of a cliff with no parachute. They leave us with shitty reading skills, great confidence, unrealistic aspirations with no basis on actual talent, and the belief that life actually offers a maternal lending hand constantly regardless of their level of effort , retakes, acceptance of subpar quality work that's LATE, and second, third, fourth, billionth chances to get the job done. What a sad disservice it is.


'liya said...

Interesting post, and can relate to wondering about some of these things. In my enhanced classes a deadline is a deadline and if they don't meet it it's a zero because they know better. In my open courses where students of all abilities are grouped together, they're allowed to hand in work up until the last day before the final exam without being penalized for lateness, and we have tons of modifications for the different abilities.

We used to be able to take marks of for lateness but now we're not allowed to. So basically I've got a whole bunch of late assignments in front of me right now that I'm supposed to bemarking in addition to my normal end of semester work.

Um I had a point to make but I forgot what that was or where this comment was supposed to lead into ... :S

Bdubba said...

I hear ya, TL!

Before I begin my rant, please know that not all schools/administrators have teachers extending deadlines into nonexistence...Here is the first school I have taught at that enforces the deadlines for standard level kids b/c they want them to learn responsibility and if they neglect theirs - it is their fault! Ideal concept, don't you think?

Here is my example of grade deflation. The school I am teaching in now has a policy that says as long as ESOL (ESL, ELL, LEP, whatever acronym you prefer) students are 'trying' you record a C as their quarter grade. Doesn't that kind of devalue earning the grade? I mean it is a free hand out for not natively speaking english. Majority of my ESOL students DO try and earn a C or better but I feel their C is of no value b/c they would have gotten that anyway. Here you go! Thanks for playing!

Well, I do have one though that is an aspiring gansta' (her words) and therefore her hair and make up are much more important to do in my little 50 minutes of the day for the entire period. She does get the grade she earns b/c she does not try - at all. Heck, I think I can count on one hand how many things she has turned in since the beginning of the year. I'd be happy to modify her grade but I can't justify eyeliner application as an Earth Space science grade - doesn't fit the standards.

Nzingha said...

Interesting comments. As a parent with a young child with DS I find it interesting to hear the teachers side. I'm not really for inclusion eduction unless one can keep up with class level. But that is subject to change as I sit in Bahrain with very limited educatinal opportunities for my child and the "hope" is to get him through grade 6. So what is one to do?

Than I have four other children all regular kids who if woked their tail off and did all their assignments on time to get high marks (noticed I said if) and than Jane who is 'special' gets an A and has done next to nothing gets the same grade it sure doesn't teach my children that hard work pays off.

I don't have the answers either but how things tend to work now just don't work well.

TeacherLady said...

Hi Nzingha! How is your lovely family doing? It's been far too long since I last checked up on your blog.

Inclusion is important socially... Your son should have the opportunity to mix with everyone, but I also feel it important to teach a child based on his or her own specific ability level and that can't happen if we force them to "fit" into a curriculum that doesn't cater to them specifically. I think that's cheating the child of the education he deserves. You weren't taught high school material when you were in elementary school, and these kids deserve the same consideration. The danger, however, is that your kid is put into a class where the expecatations may be too low and your child isn't challenged which is just as much a crime as expecting them to do work they don't understand.
The UAE is making an effort to develop better education opportunities for students with special needs, but with more of an emphasis on autism. Bahrain seems a very similar country in some ways, so perhaps they'll make similar advancements. In the mean time, I know what a great advocate you are for your kids, so make sure your voice is heard in your son's classrooms when he starts going to school. You may not have the support of legislation or other parents willing to speak up, so you may have to go it alone, but do it. It is so worth it for your son's sake. Good luck, dear.

Hepius said...

You hit the nail on the head with this post. I wonder what some colleges will think of the students my school is sending them. "Hey, didn't you graduate with straight A's from Central High?" "Well, um, yeah, but it was like, modified."

TeacherLady said...

Hepius, I guess since the middle school drops standards, resulting in the high school dropping standards, the next step is for the colleges and universities to drop their standards. They'll churn out complete morons in the fields of medicine, law, and EDUCATION!
I feel embarrassed to put my name to some of these grades unless it's made pretty darn clear that the student received boat loads of support to get the grade they got, but if they don't have an IEP, that's not always evident.

Hepius said...

Since it is illegal (in PA) to mark on a report card that the grade was modified, employers and colleges have no way of knowing that an "A" is not and "A".

Nzingha said...

The issue of him not be challenged is one that I do worry about if I place him in a school designed for children with learning disabilities (although much of the resources all over the gulf is very much about autism. We 'others' are left with very little). I don't want him to fall into the trap of 'he has DS we can expect only this of him" as is common here. But than I don't want him to get lost in a class but recieve an A because he is "special".

dunno dunno I have a few years to figure it out though than I'm sure I'll be learning as I go along :)